Tearing Down Cabrini-Green

Cabrini-Green Is Gone. Will The Replacement Work?

They're finally tearing down Cabrini-Green.

For decades, the red and white tenements near downtown Chicago have been a blot on the skyline – the nation's most infamous public housing project, synonymous with gangs, drugs, misery and murder.

Cabrini-Green is just the beginning. The plan is to replace all of Chicago's projects with beautiful new "mixed-income" developments; that means rich and poor living side by side.

So what do you get when you take the country's most disadvantaged families, add in some yuppies, and build them a brand new neighborhood? Chicago is finding out. The experiment is already under way. Vicki Mabrey reports.

All over Chicago, they're tearing down the cinderblock dinosaurs known there simply as "the projects." They have been a disaster – with generations of children raised in the squalor.

But no more.

By the end of 2009, all 53 of Chicago's public housing high-rises will be gone. It's the largest demolition of public housing in the nation's history.

It will uproot some 40,000 people, many of whom have never lived anywhere else but public housing: people like Larry Sargent.

He is happy about the destruction. "I'd rather sleep on a cardboard box, in the streets, rather than keep going through what I was going through," he says.

Sargent grew up in Cabrini-Green, but when he took on sole custody of his baby son, he knew he had to break the cycle and get out.

He never imagined that "out" might mean a brand-new, $70-million development just 100 yards from Cabrini-Green.

It's called North Town Village – 261 condos and town homes that represent one of the most daring concepts in public housing today. A total of 79 families will have the chance to move out of Cabrini-Green and move in there next to someone who bought one of the brand-new homes at market rate. A three-bedroom, top-of-the-line town home like that cost nearly $500,000. The identical unit next door could be reserved for a Cabrini-Green family whose rent is subsidized by the government.

The project started two years ago with a complex mix of public and private funding. The man on the ground was Peter Holsten, an idealistic developer selling this vision of gentrification with a twist.

"So here's someone coming and buying a $500,000 town home, and we're telling him in the sales trailer – or her – that you will be living – the town home next to you, which is no different than yours, is gonna have a Cabrini-Green family in it," he says. "And these people are not turning away. They're buying 'em."

Mark and Amanda Tomlinson bought one. Young professionals, and just engaged then, they stopped by the sales trailer the day it opened.

"I told her just for kicks, 'Bring the checkbook.' And it was just a feeding frenzy in there. I mean, everyone was screaming and yelling."

The Tomlinsons bought a three-bedroom town house on the spot. Incredibly, all the units sold before they were even built. But why would anyone invest in a neighborhood like this?

Because Cabrini-Green, and now North Town Village, sit just a mile away from Chicago's ritziest strip.

"There's tons of shops, great stores, restaurants," says Amanda.

Finding buyers was easy. The hard sell was convincing public housing residents to apply. Peter Holsten found that out when he made his pitch to a skeptical crowd at a town hall meeting at Cabrini-Green.

Cabrini residents, already angry about being pushed out, thought Peter Holsten's offer sounded too good to be true. They were suspicious, he says. There is no catch, Holsten says. "Follow the building rules and enjoy yourself in a wonderful brand-new home."

But for many coming from the chaos of Cabrini-Green, the building rules are barrier enough. On top of the obvious – no drugs, no loitering, no loud music – there is perhaps the hardest expectation of all – that they fit in with their wealthy neighbors.

For Larry Sargent, it seemed overwhelming.

To get into North Town Village, Sargent and the other applicants would have to pass a screening process so tough that many people simply dropped out. There's a home inspection, a criminal background check, and mandatory drug tests.

At the time, Candice Howell was a vice president at Peter Holsten's development company. She was in charge of the screening process. "We're looking for things, red flags, like criminal behavior against property, criminal behavior against people. Guns, drugs, convictions. Because we're not miracle workers," she says.

With that in mind, you might think Larry Sargent's past would disqualify him from landing a spot at the new development. He spent his youth trying to escape all that's wrong with Cabrini-Green, joining the Army at 17 to get away. But after six years, he ended up right back where he started, and spent the last 15 years struggling with drug addiction.

But when North Town Village held its first orientation meeting, Sargent was one of the first to arrive.

Candice Howell made it clear from day one: North Town Village would be nothing like Cabrini-Green. She literally gave lessons on how to get along there.

"Every household has to go through these orientations, and we're gonna have a bunch of social events, and we're going to push it. Push, push, push the concept of building a community," says Holsten.

Sheri Wade was desperate for a safer community. A run of bad luck landed her at Cabrini-Green eight years ago. For her two youngest children – Travis, 12, and Jamilla, 9 – the projects have been a prison. To keep them safe, Wade says, she keeps them indoors.

Wade seemed a shoo-in, but her application hit a snag. Her on-again off-again husband wouldn't pass the drug test, and she knew it. So she found herself in an incredible position: her husband on one hand, a brand-new home on the other, and Candice Howell in the middle. Wade made a wrenching choice. She and her children would leave her husband behind.

"I couldn't keep having it happen to the whole family. It wasn't just affecting him. It affected the whole house," says Wade.

Sargent was determined not to let drugs stand in his way either. He goes regularly for counseling at the VA hospital now – a commitment that helped win him a spot at North Town Village. He packed up his things, packed up his son, and left Cabrini-Green for the last time.

Then, just a five-minute walk away, he began a new life – a brand-new two-bedroom apartment with a bird's-eye view.

But not everyone will be lucky enough to live in a place like North Town Village. So far, 36 high-rises are gone, but aside from North Town Village, construction of new replacement housing has barely begun. And even when it's done, there will be 14,000 fewer public housing apartments than when the demolition began. Holsten says it's the biggest hitch in the city's plans.

"This is a crisis. Mixed income isn't the answer. It's not going to accommodate. It's a fraction of the need," says Howell.

The city has been trying to help others find homes outside public housing with mixed results. The developers say they expected some resentment to be directed at North Town Village. There's been vandalism and a couple of break-ins.

But mostly, people at North Town Village are focused on settling in. Amanda Tomlinson says she met a Cabrini family who moved in next door. "They're great," she says.

The Tomlinsons say they hope their presence there makes a difference. "There's been this cycle of isolation that's gone on for, you know, 30, 40, years. And my hope is that this breaks the cycle. And 20 years from now, I think everybody will be happy we did this," he says.

Sargent is glad he did it, as we saw when we went to visit him several months after he moved in. He has been working for the Holsten Group as a maintenance man.

And for the first time, he's proud to call his apartment home. It's still a struggle every day, he says, but he hopes the move will give his son a chance he never had.

Sheri Wade still works hard to make ends meet, but says she's already noticed a change in her children, and in herself.

"We used to go over to people's houses and spend the night. Now they'd rather come home. And I like that." She says she feels like she is "walking in the right direction."
  • David Kohn

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